Doc Mode: Autobiographical

Can what you listen to tell a story about your life? Here’s to finding out:

Documentarian Statement: Autobiographical Mode

An autobiographical documentary is perhaps the most self-explanatory of the documentary modes. Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, describes the biographical mode as one that can “provide an account of someone’s life or a significant part of it.” He notes that ethical concerns associated with this mode include “factual errors, misrepresentation, distortion, and judgmental bias.” Traditionally, in order to document a person’s life with enough detail and accuracy, a filmmaker must spend a lot of time with his or her subjects, as the makers of Grey Gardens did, following Edie and Edith around as they went about their daily activities day after day until they could note the patterns of their behavior and make a documentary that was an accurate representation of the two women.

The extreme amount of access the biographical documentary requires in order to portray the life of a particular subject makes home-video footage and photographs a common source for this mode, allowing subjects to tell the stories of their lives themselves. Maelstrom, for example, consists of home video shot by a member of a family affected by the Holocaust. Documentaries utilizing autobiographical footage show that what people choose to film and photograph can say a lot about the person behind the camera. But can what you listen to also tell a story about your life? I decided to find out, using Spotify.

From July – October 2016, Spotify sent a Month-In-Music email to its premium subscribers, calculating the top tracks, artists, and genres I listened to that month. The statistics provided a more accurate, thorough portrait than any human interviewer or documentarian could have possibly contributed, because a computer can keep track of what I’m listening to every single time I press play at any hour. Additionally, using tracks based on statistics generated by a computer certainly helped me to avoid bias and misrepresentation – I might have misremembered what music I listened to back then, or avoided including certain songs because of how someone else might judge them. For example, I wouldn’t have admitted on my own that a Taylor Swift mash-up was my most-listened-to song that July. Taylor Swift generally isn’t even an accurate sample of my go-to artists or genres of music! (These days, I listen to a lot of 70’s/80’s rock and punk, along with a heavy dose of Sing Street, The 1975, Muse, and Panic! At the Disco, if you’re curious.) But because I used the Month-In-Music summaries as the basis of documenting those four months of my life, I had to address that T. Swift track.

Actually addressing the songs was the next test: Would they accurately reflect and therefore help to document aspects of my life, or would it just feel like a random compilation of whatever music I was obsessed with at the time? As it turns out, I could easily remember what those songs meant to me and how they were impactful. And so, I created an interactive web document that compiled music, photos from that time period, and a few elaborative statements to make a unique autobiographical record of those four months of 2016.

I found that the moods of the music I listened to could impact the sort of photos I took, and that photos could document events that impacted what I listened to. For example, seeing Hamilton actor Leslie Odom Jr. in concert and then meeting him afterwards surely influenced the amount of Hamilton-listening I did over the next several months. Sometimes a song represented a response to specific events, such as the Taylor Swift track, and other times, the music simply provided snapshots of my hopes and dreams and general attitude towards life. I felt that an interactive web page consisting of photos, statistics, music links, and explanatory statements was the most appropriate format for this autobiographical assignment, because the viewer can take a journey through that portion of my life month by month, listening to the music along the way as they discover what it meant to me. Enjoy, and don’t judge (too much)!

4 Months of 2016:
An Audiovisual Journey Through My Life

Taylor Swift Mash-Up – Anthem Lights

July 2016 – Me, a Taylor Swift fan-girl? No way. But I’d just returned from having the time of my life with a bunch of new film friends in London, and my hometown was feeling pretty quiet. Re-adjusting to living with my family while getting surgery was harder than I thought it would be. My beliefs occasionally clashed with my parents’: One memory I have from that summer is how angry my dad was when he found out I had watched a rated-R movie in London (I accidentally let it slip; I was excited that I’d seen Gladiator on the big screen in The Royal Albert Hall, my favorite music venue of all time, with a live orchestra performing the score.) The highlight of that whole story to my dad? The fact that Gladiator is R. It didn’t seem to matter that I was technically an adult at age 20, or that it was a decision I’d made, not out of recklessness or rebellion, but out of the ability I’d developed, in large part thanks to my incredible teachers in the film program, to judge media with a bit more nuance than the MPAA rating system provides – for example, is the film representing or advocating the behaviors it presents?
And so, one specific line in this song – “Someday, I’ll be living in a big old city” – became the way I reassured myself that I would continue to pursue my film dreams even if my family at times didn’t understand or agree with them, and that my experience in London wasn’t a one-time fluke but a taste of what the future could be: One surrounded by culture, art, people, and fellow filmmaker friends.



August 2016 – Illness. The Olympics. A little bit of depression creeping in.

Taste the Feeling was an upbeat little Avicii/Conrad Sewell collaboration used in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Although I mostly remember feeling down during that time, it’s interesting to see how extremely peppy those most-played songs are. It’s like I was trying to counteract the exhaustion of physical and mental illness by listening to something extra-happy.

Prelude – Muse

September 2016 – Prelude by Muse represents a couple of things: The number of times I listened to it while using it for a TMA 112 project, but it’s also by one of my favorite bands.

My TMA 112 Photo Essay – a visualization of Prelude by Muse

I used a lot of instrumental music to help me fall asleep during a crazy pre-production period managing locations for Maggie, so 4/5 of my top tracks are soft, gentle instrumental pieces, but they’re still pretty representative of one specific segment of my insanely diverse musical tastes. For example:

Harry in Winter – Patrick Doyle

Patrick Doyle and James Horner are two of my favorite film composers. Patrick Doyle specializes in classically-inspired orchestral scores, which, as a clarinet player, I really enjoy. I performed a solo from Harry in Winter, a track from the fourth Harry Potter film, at a concert during my senior year of high school, so perhaps there’s a bit of nostalgia here.

Cinematic Chill-Out Playlist – by Spotify

I listened to this playlist a lot while taking photos for a camera class, drawn in by the Alexandre Desplat tracks from The Imitation Game in the list at the time. It, in large part, explains the amount of soundtrack/scorecore that composed 65% of my listening that month, according to Spotify. Interestingly, one photo I took of light streaming through a cup next to a lens cap on the table really fits the playlist’s ethereal, at times melancholy, gray-and-blue vibes:


October 2016 – I listened to so much Hamilton that month, perfecting the fastest rap in the album! A new, mostly forgettable OneRepublic album dropped that month as well, so I had a brief stint with the bass guitar-driven title track.

Guns and Ships – Hamilton Soundtrack

SO MUCH HAMILTON! Why? Because, like so many other scrappy young 20-somethings, I was an avid writer, a wannabe filmmaker, and a newbie to the media arts program who was not planning to throw away her shot. I’d also met Leslie Odom Jr., who debuted Aaron Burr from ‘Hamilton’, the previous month.
Meeting ‘Hamilton’s’ Leslie Odom Jr.!

St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion) – John Parr

There are a lot of my own personal hopes and dreams reflected in this month’s list. St. Elmo’s Fire is all about reaching for new horizons, never giving up, and seeing how far you can go to become the person you want to be. It was my first full semester officially in the film program, I was taking 17 credits, and I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Call it cheesy, but sometimes you need a little inspiration.

Here’s my indie/hipster/R&B track of the month that you’ve never heard of: Far Side of Town written by Arthur Lewis, friend and fellow member of a freestyle group with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. If this track speaks of anything going on in my life at the time, it most likely alludes to my extreme focus on school above anything else, pursuing a hazy future with an intensity that perhaps surpassed even my busiest friends and roommates. I’m not sure I even knew what I wanted to get out of all that craziness – I knew I wanted to be a better film producer, but perhaps I also thought I could escape depression if I ran fast enough.

This is where the Monthly Music emails ended. I was pretty disappointed – I had begun to look forward to seeing what music had been important to me each month, and then trying to figure out why. This project is proof to me that life influences art and art influences life – specifically, that the music we listen to can provide a window into our beliefs, attitudes, and hopes, how we respond to what happens in our lives, and how those responses change over time.






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